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Bush and Blair have lit a fire which could consume them

by Seumas Milne Friday, Apr. 09, 2004 at 5:11 AM

Bush and Blair have lit a fire which could consume them The Iraqi uprising will drive home the forgotten lessons of empire

Bush and Blair have lit a fire which could consume them

The Iraqi uprising will drive home the forgotten lessons of empire

Seumas Milne

Thursday April 8, 2004

The Guardian

Where are they now, the cheerleaders for war on Iraq? Where are the US Republican hawks who predicted the Anglo-American invasion would be a "cakewalk", greeted by cheering Iraqis? Or the liberal apologists, who hailed a "new dawn" for freedom and democracy in the Arab world as US marines swathed Baghdad in the stars and stripes a year ago? Some, like the Sun newspaper - which yesterday claimed Iraqis recognise that occupation is in their "own long-term good" and are not in "bloody revolt" at all - appear to be in an advanced state of denial.

Others, to judge by the performance of the neocon writer William Shawcross and Blairite MP Ann Clwyd, have been reduced to a state of stuttering incoherence by the scale of bloodshed and suffering they have helped unleash. Clwyd, who regularly visits Iraq as the prime minister's "human rights envoy", struggled to acknowledge in an interview on Monday that bombing raids by US F16s and Apache helicopter gunships on Iraqi cities risked causing civilian deaths, not merely injuries. The following day, 16 children were reportedly killed in Falluja when US warplanes rocketed their homes. And yesterday, in what may well be the most inflammatory act of slaughter yet, a US helicopter killed dozens of Iraqis in a missile assault on a Falluja mosque.

The attack on a mosque during afternoon prayers will, without doubt, swell the ranks of what has become a nationwide uprising against the US-led occupation. By launching a crackdown against the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr - and, in an eloquent display of what it means by freedom in occupied Iraq, closing his newspaper - the US has finally triggered the long-predicted revolt across the Shia south and ended the isolation of the resistance in the so-called Sunni triangle. Bush, Blair and Bremer have lit a fire in Iraq which may yet consume them all. The evidence of the past few days is that the uprising has spread far beyond the ranks of Sadr's militia. And far from unleashing the civil war US and British pundits and politicians have warned about, Sunni and Shia guerrillas have been fighting side by side in Baghdad against the occupation forces.

This revolt shows every sign of turning into Iraq's own intifada, and towns like Falluja and Ramadi - centres of resistance from the first days of occupation - are now getting the treatment Israel has meted out to Palestinians in Jenin, Nablus and Rafah over the past couple of years. As resistance groups have moved from simply attacking US and other occupation troops to attempts to hold territory, US efforts to destroy them - as an American general vowed to do yesterday - have become increasingly brutal. Across Iraq, US soldiers and their European allies are now killing Iraqis in their hundreds on the streets of their own cities in an explosive revival of the Middle East's imperial legacy.

For Britain, Iraq has turned into its first full-scale colonial war since it was forced out of Aden in the late 1960s. And the pledge by US commanders to "pacify" the mushrooming centres of Iraqi insurrection echoes not only the doomed US efforts to break the Vietnamese in the 60s and 70s, but also the delusionary euphemisms of Britain's own blood-soaked campaigns in Kenya and Malaya a decade earlier. The same kind of terminology is used to damn those fighting foreign rule in Iraq. Thus President Bush's spokesman described Shia guerrillas as "thugs and terrorists", while his Iraqi proconsul Paul Bremer - head of a 130,000-strong occupation force which has already killed more than 10,000 Iraqi civilians - issued a priceless denunciation of groups who "think power in Iraq should come out of the barrel of a gun ... that is intolerable".

The bulk of the media and political class in Britain has followed this lead in an apparent attempt to normalise the occupation of Iraq in the eyes of the public. The fact that British squaddies shot dead 15 Iraqis in Amara on Tuesday has had little more coverage than the shameful beating to death of Iraqi prisoners in British custody. Both the BBC and ITN routinely refer to British troops as "peacekeepers"; private mercenaries are called "civilian contractors"; the rebranding of the occupation planned for June is described as the "handover of power to the Iraqis"; the Sadr group always represents a "small minority" of Shia opinion; and a patently unscientific and contradictory poll carried out in Iraq last month - in which most people said they were opposed to the presence of coalition forces in Iraq - is absurdly used to claim majority support for the occupation.

The growing panic in Washington over what Senator Edward Kennedy calls "Bush's Vietnam" is now focused on the date for the formal - and entirely cosmetic - transfer of sovereignty to a hand-picked Iraqi puppet administration, currently timetabled for June 30. The original idea of an early date was to give the appearance of progress in Iraq before the US presidential elections. But there was also an anxiety that pressure for an elected transitional government would become unstoppable if the transfer took place any later - and like all occupying powers, the US fears genuinely free elections in Iraq. In any case, according to existing plans, the US will maintain full effective control - of security, oil, economic policy, major contracts - under a rigged interim constitution whenever the formal "transfer" takes place.

The current uprising increasingly resembles the last great revolt against British rule in Iraq in 1920, which also cost more than 10,000 lives and helped bring forward the country's formal independence. But Britain maintained behind-the-scenes control, though military bases and ministerial "advisers", until the client monarchy was finally overthrown in 1958. If Iraq is now to regain its independence, the lessons of history are that the Iraqi resistance will have to sharply raise the costs of occupation, and that those in the occupying countries who grasp the dangers, unworkability and injustice of imperial rule must increase the political pressure for withdrawal.

Unlike in, say, Spain or Australia, we are hamstrung in Britain by the fact that all three main political parties are committed to maintaining the occupation, including the Liberal Democrats - whose former leader and Bosnian governor Lord Ashdown yesterday argued for at least another decade in Iraq. But opposition to such latter-day imperial bravura is strong among the British public and across all parties, and must now find its voice. There is a multiplicity of different possible mechanisms to bring about a negotiated, orderly withdrawal and free elections. Tony Blair calls that "running away" and admitting "we have got it all wrong". But he and Bush did get it wrong: there were no weapons of mass destruction, Iraq wasn't a threat, there was no UN authorisation, and the invasion was manifestly illegal. Foreign troops in Iraq are not peacekeepers, but aggressors. The lessons of empire are having to be learned all over again.

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